I don’t know how I’ve made it into my mid-50s without having seen this story before, but I love it. In the course of Mark Liberman’s Language Log post on “typographical bleeping,” he quotes the American Heritage Dictionary as follows:

The obscenity fuck is a very old word and has been considered shocking from the first, though it is seen in print much more often now than in the past. Its first known occurrence, in code because of its unacceptability, is in a poem composed in a mixture of Latin and English sometime before 1500. The poem, which satirizes the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England, takes its title, “Flen flyys,” from the first words of its opening line, “Flen, flyys, and freris,” that is, “fleas, flies, and friars.” The line that contains fuck reads “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.” The Latin words “Non sunt in coeli, quia,” mean “they [the friars] are not in heaven, since.” The code “gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk” is easily broken by simply substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, keeping in mind differences in the alphabet and in spelling between then and now: i was then used for both i and j; v was used for both u and v; and vv was used for w. This yields “fvccant [a fake Latin form] vvivys of heli.” The whole thus reads in translation: “They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge].”

If only I’d known that in seventh grade! (The OED apparently doesn’t consider this an actual attestation, because their first citation is “a1503 DUNBAR Poems lxxv. 13 Be his feiris he wald haue fukkit”; I don’t know whether that’s because of the code or because it’s fake Latin rather than straight English. And a correspondent cites the lines in Notes and Queries for Oct. 13, 1855 without the encoded words, saying “My omissions are put in cypher by Mr. Wright, and are not producible [sic].” He has misunderstood Wright’s own fastidious words in his Reliquiæ Antiquæ: Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts: “The expressions concealed by the cypher, as in the MS., are rather gross, and do not speak much for the morals of the Carmelites of Cambridge.” At any rate, at the last link you can see the entire poem, such as it is, with the further encoded line “Fratres cum knyvys goth about and txxkxzv nfookt xxzxkt.”)

Oh, and for the Latinists among you, Marie Borroff, in a footnote to her Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, & Beyond (p. 209), says “The incorrect form cœli may have been substituted for cœlis for the sake of the rhyme with heli.” I’ll point out also that the h of heli is a purely orthographical flourish, not to be pronounced; the town of Ely derives its name from eels, not heels.


  1. More for Latinists: Von Gulick’s Sexual Life of Ancient China Latinizes the dirty parts, at least in my edition, as does Wallis Budge’s translation of “Laughable Stories”, a joke book written in Syriac by a Jacobite Christian bishop in Persia around 1300 AD.

  2. What does Bollywood have to do with anything?

  3. (Some guy was spamming for a bollywood site; I deleted the comments.)

  4. Y’know, I’m actually skeptical that the use of fuck and swive in this passage is a case of verbal obscenity as we understand it. If that were so, I’d expect to see just the critical words encrypted. It seems to me more plausible that it was the underlying predication — that monks have sex with townswomen — that was to be buried, hidden, not openly admitted.
    On a lighter note, we hear of the monks again in this bit of rhyme, attributed to Canute the Great but obviously of much later date:
    Merie sungen the Muneches binnen Ely
    Tha Cnut ching rew ther by.
    Rowe ye cnites noer the lant,
    And here we thes Muneches sæng.”
    Tolkien recycles the first couplet at the end of his modern Anglo-Saxon poem The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, where it stands (as he himself says) for the coming of the new England (typified by rhyme) and the fading of the old (typified by the alliterative long-line).
    (Note: there are character-set issues in the transcriptions I’ve linked to, but I’ve found no others.)

  5. This page has it with the proper characters (at least in my browser) and a translation:
    Merie sungen ðe muneches binnen Ely,
    Ða Cnut Ching reu ðer by;
    Roweð, Cnihtes, noer ðe land,
    And here we þes muneches sæng.
    (Merrily sang the monks of Ely when Cnut King rowed by. Row, boatmen, near the land, and hear we these monks sing.)

  6. a Jacobite Christian bishop in Persia around 1300 AD
    Poor Bar Hebraeus, he don’t get no respect from anyone these days…

  7. If anyone wants to learn more about the history/prehistory of the f-word, I strongly recommend Roger Lass’ “Four letters in search of an etymology”, DIACHRONICA 12:1 (1995) 99-111.

  8. John Gregory Abu Faraj Bar Hebraeus actually has six books in print — not bad for an author writing in a language as obscure as Syriac.

  9. Ginger Yellow says

    What dialect is “ching”? I don’t remember it being spelled that way in any of the OE poetry I read.

  10. Really enjoyed that post, lh, and the comments.

  11. Hat: I meant that there were character-set issues with the Tolkien texts.
    Ginger Yellow: ching would be the expected ME outcome of OE cyng, cing (a short form of the standard OE form cyning) like cheek from céac and chin from cin. OE c was originally [k] everywhere, but changed to [tʃ] before front vowels. This is not to be confused with the transformations of Latin c (also originally [k] everywhere) to [tʃ] before [a] in French (but not Norman French) words, to [s] before front vowels in French words, and to [tʃ] before front vowels in Italian words. I don’t know exactly why “king” kept the original [k], but I’d guess it was a Northern form influenced by Old Norse kóngr.

  12. What is the meaning of the word “Rumbo” in this poem? It’s the first word of a line near the end (the one about a lamprey from the Thames) — and I couldn’t find “rumbo” ( or anything that might be a form thereof) in dictionaries of Latin or of Middle English.

  13. Re: “Rumbo”

    Turbot (rhombus)? There are turbot in the Thames Estuary.

  14. marie-lucie says

    JC: the transformations of Latin c (also originally [k] everywhere) to [tʃ] before [a] in French (but not Norman French) words

    The Upper Norman French dialect (if it is still spoken) never changed Latin c before a, whether initially or finally. Thus it has (or had) le cat ‘the cat” and la vaque ‘the cow” (Standard French le chat and la vache).

  15. marie-lucie says

    Latinizes the dirty parts

    It helps to know some Latin if you are studying Amerindian languages recorded by Boas and others.

  16. Yes, Piotr — that makes the line, and the context, make perfect sense: as the same part of the poem also talks about lampreys. THANK YOU!

  17. The OED apparently doesn’t consider this an actual attestation

    You only had to wait a little bit for the March 2008 update!

    And this is old, but since Language Hat did say “Always good to mention these things; you never know who might be reading these threads and picking up misinformation”:

    John Cowan (May 7, 2007): ching would be the expected ME outcome of OE cyng, cing

    No, you were probably thinking of give. That’s the one that would be expected to be palatalized, and *was* palatalized in the south (Chaucer uses y- spellings; yēven is the headword in the Middle English Dictionary), but then the Scandinavian-influenced give took over for some reason. King wasn’t palatalized because, at that early stage, it still had a back vowel. It’s one of the poster children for how we know that the Old English velar palatalization happened *before* i-umlaut, and there wasn’t a second round of palatalization (at least, not generally — there are a very few attestations of ching in early Middle English, and that poem about Cnut is one of them).

    Other examples from later discussions here: geese, gild, keep, Kemp, Kent, kin, kitchen. Thanks to Piotr Gąsiorowski, Eli Nelson, and Nelson Goering.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Latinizes the dirty parts

    Gibbon leaves an exciting account of the future empress Theodora’s performances as an actress* in Procopius’ original Greek. I always knew that A-Level would come in handy.

    * “Leda and the Swan”, IIRC.

  19. King wasn’t palatalized because, at that early stage, it still had a back vowel.

    Thanks, that is indeed a useful reminder!

  20. David Marjanović says

    Given muneches > monks, I wonder if the ch here is meant to be read Italian-style, i.e. indicates the very absence of palatalization before a front vowel.

    For king itself, a look in the fridge is helpful: Finnish kuningas.

  21. Yes! From the OED’s etymology:

    The Germanic word was borrowed into the Slavonic and Finnic languages: compare Old Church Slavonic kŭnędzĭ prince, ruler, Russian knjaz′ prince, Polish ksiądz priest (see knez n.), Finnish kuningas king, formerly also lord, master, Estonian kuningas king. Compare also later borrowings into the Baltic languages ( < a Middle Low German form corresponding to the β. forms): Old Prussian konagis king, Lithuanian kunigas priest, formerly also lord, master.

    (At first I assumed you were referring to some Finnish refrigerated food with brand name Kuningas. But Google tells me “the Finnish refrigerator” is in fact an expression in historical linguistics!)

  22. The spelling muneches is a Latin/Greek hangover: monk < Latin monachus < Greek μοναχός ‘single, unique, solitary’. So I’m skeptical that that tells us anything about how the scribe pronounced ching.

  23. David Marjanović says

    But Google tells me “the Finnish refrigerator” is in fact an expression in historical linguistics!

    I didn’t even know that; clearly that professor has a great mind 🙂

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